Poet lifts the spirits of her pandemic weary followers

Harriet Wolman

Harriet Wolman’s latest writing gig is not the most lucrative she has ever had, but it’s probably the most popular.

Wolman, 85, has been dubbed the poet laureate of Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple where she leads an online poetry and creative writing group for the congregation and sends out a poem once a week.

She’s developed a following of people who request her weekly poems. “As someone hears about a poem, they often ask to be added to the list of recipients,” she said. “People are expecting it. People ask, ‘When are you sending your next poem?’”

Wolman honed her skills writing reports first as a school board trustee, and then as an assistant to three cabinet ministers. She also served almost 20 years on the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB).

Poetry has been her way of coping with the loss of her husband in 2019 and the COVID lockdown.  

“When the pandemic began, I found the isolation very difficult as do most of us. I was also recently widowed which made matters worse,” she said. “I began to write these poems as much to counter my own personal feelings of isolation as well as to assist others.”

Sending out a weekly poem has kept her connected to family and friends. “This seemed to be a way of reaching people and providing them with some support to help with the isolation of the pandemic,” she said.

Wolman, in turn, has been encouraged by the positive response to her poetry. While acknowledging the challenges of the pandemic, her poems are uplifting, she said.  “You capture people’s hopes and fears,” but at the same time it’s important to be positive.”

Keeping a positive outlook has helped Wolman cope with many of the challenges she has faced in her own life.

As a young mother of two she was abandoned by her first husband. She started a successful real estate conveyancer business to support her family.

When she married Frank Wolman in 1968, they co-parented five children. “There were challenges in bringing the families together,” she recounted. “But over time we became one loyal unit.”

The 40-year marriage was a happy one and she maintained her positive outlook even when Frank developed Alzheimer symptoms around 2000.  

About four years after his death in 2008,she partnered with Henry Liss for a union that lasted six and a half years. He died in 2019. “I consider myself twice blessed [in marriage].”

Dissatisfaction with the education system spurred Wolman’s involvement in politics. In 1975 she was elected as a school board trustee for the City of York and she was the board chair for two of her five years there.

In 1981 and 1985 she ran unsuccessfully in provincial elections as a candidate for the Progressive Conservative Party. She then worked for three different Tory cabinet ministers—two federal (Walter McLean and Gerry Weiner) and one provincial (Larry Grossman). 

Wolman was appointed to the refugee board in 1993, a position she held until 2013. “I was always re-appointed by all the governments, Conservative and Liberal, so I must have done something right. My decisions were seldom overturned by the federal court.”

In 2012 she was awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for her years of public service.

After leaving the IRB, Wolman did private work with refugee claimants for immigration lawyers.  She now volunteers at Matthew House, where she helps refugees prepare for their IRB hearings.

Wolman’s foray into poetry in 2020 began with a single poem. She said she shared it with family
members and they encouraged her to keep writing. “They thought my poem captured the spirit of the
moment and that’s what I have tried to do.”

A Smile For May (May 3, 2020)

Finally it’s May and the sun is out,

Welcome to spring, we all can shout.

But we’re still at home and a bit depressed,

But watch the leaves grow—it will relieve your distress.

The “Beginning” is over; we’re in the “Middle”.

When the pandemic will end is the real riddle.

We are now going through a real transition

And in the end we’ll be in a better position.

High Park is closed at this awful time

To see cherry blossoms, just tune in online.

Keep up the games you play at home

And don’t forget ZOOM or talk on the phone.

It would, of course be a real winner

If all of us could go out for dinner!

But c’mon folks, put on a smile—

We’ve already walked the longest mile!!

Have a great week!

So We Wait Some More (May 16, 2021) 

We will stay in lockdown ‘til the 2nd of June

After that we may sing a different tune.

Still no golf or tennis or organized games

Which is tough on sportsmen and also dames.

The weather is better—it’s really spring.

Let’s take advantage—so here’s the thing:

Go outside as much as you can

And work on your fitness every woman and man.

The pathway to freedom means many more shots

For all of us and not just in “hot spots.”

Vaccination supplies are coming at last

So make an appointment and get your shot fast.

If you had Shot number 1, you’ll wait for Shot 2;

It may try your patience but that’s all you can do.

Violence abounds wherever we turn,

And we all wish for peace—for that we all yearn.

It’s hard to be uplifted in a world full of unrest

But you have to keep smiling as you do your best.

The best is yet to come.

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